He-Man … or Has-Been?

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Masters of the Universe is experiencing a renaissance thanks to Netflix, Toy Hall of Fame nominations — and fans who have the power.

I didn’t watch Game Of Thrones, so I honestly don’t know if the show was really about a game – but if it was, I’ve recently thought, surely the true loser is He-Man. I thought the end of Game Of Thrones signaled the end of the sword and sorcery genre in pop culture, especially with how fast and loose the series treated the presence of Starbucks in medieval times. The return of He-Man’s sister She-Ra on Netflix was a glimmer of hope (puns intended), but Princesses of Power is definitely more focused on character arcs than world-building, delegating the sillier elements of the classic Filmation She-Ra show to fleeting Easter eggs. As far as I could tell from the cues of toy and television trends, a true He-Man reboot was nowhere on the horizon. He-Man was dead.

Then came this year’s PowerCon. PowerCon is comic-con, but just for He-Man. Few characters in pop culture can support their own convention. Doc Savage has his own fan gathering every year, right here in Arizona. I think Batman and Doctor Who could support their own conventions, with an emphasis on cosplayers and movie marathons … but their roots were on the page or the screen exclusively, respectively. They may have quickly mastered all of pop culture, but Masters of the Universe began as a trifecta: an action figure line, packaged with comic books, and promoted with a syndicated cartoon, right from its start. He-Man began as a toy, a superhero, and TV star at the same time, so carrying his own con ain’t no big thing.

Among all those things, He-Man is still a barbarian in fuzzy pants. Kids aren’t really into that anymore. Maybe if Orko was the lead – he’s certainly the most Pokemon-ish of the classic cast, and the anonymity of his face could offer a nice allegory for social media – but, that’s the ’80s cartoon equivalent to giving Joey his own Friends spin-off. The comic relief is never strong enough on his own. Every incarnation of He-Man following his wildly successful initial run – from the space-faring New Adventures era to the 2002-04 reboot – always suffered in that shadow. Mattel has managed to milk the franchise with adult-collector action figure lines, with “Classics” and the upcoming “Origins,” but those terms are definitive looks backward. As I prepared to attend PowerCon this year, I anticipated nothing more than an immersion in the old school.

Enter Kevin Smith. On the last day of PowerCon (the day I didn’t attend, natch), Kevin Smith arrived and announced that he was show-running a new, anime-infused He-Man cartoon for Netflix. I actually received a notification for the announcement while I was in line for the Simpsons ride at Universal Studios, with more dings during the lines for Waterworld and The Mummy. The Internet boomed with the power of Grayskull! Details were few, but pointed. Smith promised that his new show would pick up where the original series left off – and while skeptics cited that Filmation’s show was definitively episodic, I knew exactly what Kevin meant.

Warning: here’s where the references go deep. You see, Skeletor’s origins as King Randor’s brother Keldor and Teela’s familial connections to the Sorceress and legacy of Grayskull were all threads left dangling when Mattel pulled the plug on Masters’ original run in the ’80s. The excellent (and oft-overlooked) Mike Young-produced, 2000s MOTU series that ran on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block used these ideas to establish a new continuity, but the characters’ redesigns created an aesthetic rift from the classic era. Kevin promises to bridge that gap, and move things forward – an ability, despite all his other skills, I wasn’t sure He-Man had. Apparently they don’t call him the most powerful man in the universe for nothing!

Masters of the Universe He-Man She-Ra

Just consider that, this very month, He-Man stands side by side with other remarkable nominees as an inductee in the National Toy Hall of Fame. (Ed: Masters of the Universe missed out on being inducted into the 2019 class.) The conspiracy theorist in me says that Mattel greased some palms so the new He-Man and She-Ra shows get the old Hall of Fame bump, but I don’t know if Big Coloring Book has that kind of cash. Other nominees, like Care Bears and My Little Pony, are also seminal to lines from the ’80s, while others, like the top and Matchbox cars, have a primal quality that just might transcend the trends of time. To me, He-Man falls smack dab in the middle of that spectrum – “the strong man” has been an eternal fascination, from stories of Samson and Hercules to comic book ads for Charles Atlas’ magic formula. MOTU was just the delivery system for a new version of this myth.

That’s what I’ve realized, since PowerCon. It’s in the very name – He-Man’s show isn’t called “Barbarian Con,” or “Sword and Sorcery Con.” The appeal is in the power! The fuzzy shorts are definitely a part of the formula that made He-Man successful, but the concept of making MOTU action figures bigger than the standard Star Wars or G.I. Joe sizes of that time is what makes him truly Hall of Fame worthy. It’s the game-changer. And, thankfully, He-Man and his fans are still around to play.

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Russ Kazmierczak Jr.
Russ Kazmierczak, Jr. is the creator of Amazing Arizona Comics, a minicomic book satire of Arizona news, history, and culture. He also hosts Phoenix Tonight, a monthly late night talk show at Space 55. Find his work at amazingarizonacomics.com.